Access to Environmental Information

By Silver, Ken | Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Access to Environmental Information


Silver, Ken, Environmental Health Perspectives


In the February 2004 issue of EHP in the article "Does Secrecy Equal Security? Limiting Access to Environmental Information," Richard Dahl (2004) discussed the government's current policies placing greater restrictions on public access to information that industry and government were once required to make available.

A future in which federal agencies withhold information on environmental problems throughout the United States economy in the name of "national security" can be glimpsed by taking a look at Department of Energy (DOE) facilities. DOE facilities have long operated at the nexus of public concern and national security.

In the 10 years that I have devoted to studying historical exposures at DOE sites, I have seen the future, and it's not pretty. My experience with the DOE's response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA 2004) requests has been enlightening:

* In 1996, a DOE FOIA officer asserted that records from a reactor safety committee at Los Alamos National Laboratory were not classified but possibly "sensitive." I followed up with a written request for a legal definition of "sensitive"; his response was that he was unable to find a definition.

* After patiently waiting several months for a response to another FOIA request, I finally obtained reports on historical air emissions of plutonium at Los Alamos, but pages were missing in a regular sequence. When I enquired about the missing pages, a DOE FOIA officer told me that maybe the missing pages were "owned" by the contractor and not by the federal government, and therefore were beyond the reach of the FOIA.

* Also, colleagues holding security clearances at DOE sites told me that they were sometimes afraid to discuss subjects that were amply documented in the public domain.

* Highly qualified academic epidemiologists have had to struggle with government lawyers in attempts to obtain access to historical exposure records (Advisory Committee on Energy-Related Epidemiologic Research 1996). The lawyers had ample resources to cause delays, but the epidemiologists had limited time to complete work on National Institutes of Health grants or face the opprobrium of peers and funding agencies.

Many former workers who have submitted claims for illness compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act (2000) face a difficult situation: they are depending upon timely access to information about past exposures so they can receive compensation before they die (General Accounting Office 2004). …

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